This is the first in what I hope will be a regular series of features about that endangered species - the independent bookshop.
I don’t have any grand plan about which shops to visit and in what order. I have had one or two shops suggested to me but I am open to further recommendations, and indeed to invitations from independent bookshop owners themselves.
My first visit was to Newham Bookshop in London’s East End. It was a natural first choice.
I had interviewed Benjamin Zephaniah there while I was writing for the Times Educational Supplement (when Zephaniah was still living in Newham and the bookshop was his local hangout) and subsequently had promised John Newman at various book events that I would make another visit to the shop and feature it on ACHUKA.
Having been to the shop before and not remembering encountering any difficulty in finding it, I was in relaxed and summery mood as I walked out from the Underground into the main street, but soon afterwards instinct told me that the Navigation app on my mobile phone had probably sent me in the wrong direction out of Upton Park. I asked a local and he confirmed that I needed to turn myself around. Barking Road was in the opposite direction, at the end of Green Street, past West Ham football stadium.
I had told the shop I would be there soon after mid-day, so there was time for a stroll around the exotic stalls of Queen’s Market.
35 Years: 1978 - 2013
At the bottom of Green Street, at the crossroads with Barking Road, I observed the numbers on the opposite side of the street began 2… 4….
The odd side of the street began 1… 3…
So I turned left, reckoning on a longish stroll before I reached 745-747 Barking Road, the address of the Newham Bookshop.
Made for browsing...
It’s surprising how long it takes to walk up through the hundreds, passing shopfronts and houses. It was also, notwithstanding it being September, one of the hottest days of the year.
I walked on and on until the numbering petered out in the 600s and I crossed under the North Circular realising something was badly wrong.
I asked some shoppers if they could direct me to Newham Bookshop. They couldn’t but they confirmed that Barking Road did not extend any further.
This book by Richard Platt caught my eye
So I retraced my steps, keeping to the shady side of the street, and asked again every so often. Eventually someone within the shadows of a laundrette told me I had to walk all the way back to the beginning.
“He’s looking for the New Ham bookshop,” the woman in the doorway shouted.
“All the way up this road to the Boleyn Arms, he says.”
I had a Travelcard so I hopped on a bus. Of course, it turned right immediately afterwards.
Vivian versus the Apocalypse! So long as Vivian is at the till we are safe :)
There were two policemen near the stop, so I double-checked directions with them.
They confirmed the shop was opposite the Champions statue.
“The one where they’re holding the cup…” One of the policemen showed me how.
“You’ll need a bus,” the other one said (looking at the whiteness of my beard perhaps).
The other constable, seeing my green and yellow trainers, said, “No he won’t.”
All I’d had to do was glance to the right instead of the left at the bottom of Green Street and I would have seen the bright yellow double-fronted shopfront straight away.
So, lest anyone else copies my mistake and heads off in completely the wrong direction, here are explicit instructions for getting to Newham bookshop from Upton Park underground station.
TO REACH THE NEWHAM BOOKSHOP FROM UPTON PARK UNDERGROUND, COME OUT OF THE STATION AND TURN RIGHT. IF YOU HAVE TIME, SPEND TEN MINUTES IN QUEEN’S MARKET, THEN CONTINUE WALKING DOWN GREEN STREET, PASSING WEST HAM FOOTBALL GROUND ON YOUR LEFT.
KEEP TO THE RIGHT-HAND SIDE OF THE ROAD AND AT THE JUNCTION WITH BARKING ROAD (YOU WILL SEE THE CHAMPIONS FOOTBALL STATUE OPPOSITE) TURN RIGHT AND, HEY PRESTO, YOU WILL HAVE REACHED YOUR DESTINATION.
What should have been a 10 minute walk had turned out, in my case, to be a 100 minute slog in the mid-day heat and I arrived at the shop feeling distinctly sticky.
Vivian, the bookshop manager, was perched beside the front window, near the door to the adult section. She quickly welcomed me and took me to the other side of the shop to introduce me to Liz, in the children's section.
They had run out of teabags so I was sent across the road with some cash to buy a new box of PG Tips.
But when I got back with them, she said she had some ice-cold beer left over from an event. Would I rather have that?
Early afternoon beer has rarely tasted better than that half-pint of Peroni, drunk from the bottle
Newham Bookshop is made for browsers. No one could accuse it of being short of stock or too orderly. Books are stacked on the floor as well as on shelves. Shelves have books stocked spine facing outward, and then additional titles are placed in front, cover facing. Half-opened delivery boxes take up limited floorspace.
Clutter is a good sign in a bookshop, I always think
It was a shock to hear from Liz, who oversees the children’s side, that John Newman, having returned to social work and adult education, now only works one day in the bookshop, on a Tuesday. This blog post from 2011 demostrates how intensely involved with the shop he was over a considerable span of time. I did meet John later (at the Big Picture Press launch), so he is still very active in the books world, but sounded somewhat regretful that he is no longer so closely connected with the shop.
The shop is celebrating its 35th birthday this year and Vivian has been there for most of that time (she joined the shop in 1987). It is very much her domain.
The shop has had its busiest summer ever with orders from schools, she tells me. She is not sure why. “Possibly the Pupil Premium?” she suggests. I agree it is a likely explanation.
A forward thinking idea by nearby Cumberland School
One local secondary school bought all 300 of its new intake a £6.99 book voucher (redeemable only at the Newham shop) and presented it to the students at their early induction day in July, with an invitation to buy and read a book in the summer holiday. The vouchers were individually named so Vivian is able to report back to the school which students have and which have not made use of their vouchers.
It is Vivian's belief that events are at the heart of a good bookshop’s business. They are hard work and they involve long days, but they are ‘so interesting’ and productive in terms of sales and profile in the community
Tom, a lanky philosophy student and Saturday employee is busy in the shop selecting books for one such evening event. The event is in his subject so Vivian is leaving the selection of titles largely to him.
Vivian is excited because confirmation has just come through for an event with John Hegley.
Although the shop was never busy on the afternoon of my visit, it was rarely entirely devoid of customers.
Huw Richards is an occasional customer at the shop and on this visit, after a fairly long browse, selected the second book in the Inspector Singh series. He calls the shop “a terrific place - wish there were more like it.”
Vivian seems to have a particular empathy for older teenage boys who are just discovering the power of reading. Watching these eager young individuals making their purchases was a moving experience. I imagine even just one such trade would make any bookseller's day worthwhile, and I witnessed three in the space of an hour.
Jerome often emails Vivian to see if she has certain titles in stock. She in turn recommends books for him. He is in that phase of lapping up classics such as Catcher In The Rye, and walks off with a carrier bag of three or four new titles.
Jerome was excited to hear about a forthcoming 25% off event
Jamal seizes on some books from a Young Adult series that he has already read from the library but wants to have them them on his booshelf at home. “People call me a hoarder - no, I’m a book collector.”
Later, while I am spending more time with Liz in the children’s section, Vivian comes through excitedly to say that some boys have just come in to order £200 worth of titles.
Tom and another shop helper are putting the details into the system while the proud student purchasing them tells me he is about to leave London to go to Bath to study pharmacy.
I stay at the shop past schools-out time, to see if there will be an influx into the children’s section. But it’s a quiet afternoon on this side. A couple of older students come in to purchase pens. A retired primary teacher comments that it’s “so good to come to a bookshop and not have to buy books for children” yet spends most of her time browsing the children’s shelves.
Horrid Henry it has to be...
Eventually a dad and son enter the shop. The boy heads straight for Horrid Henry. Dad tries to show him other options, but the youngster’s mind is set.
When Melissa York interviewed Vivian for the Newham Reporter in February this year, Vivian explained that everyone who has ever been employed in the Bookshop has been from Newham. “As well as being local, we are all committed to books. The whole purpose of working in a bookshop is to share that passion for reading.”
Vivian Archer shows no sign of losing her relish for bookselling and encouraging a love of books in her community.
I was shown the proof copy of a booklet that is ready for printing, titled "Celebrating 35 years: words of support from our friends". The booklet contains quotes from a host of notable customers and supporters of the shop, including Michael Rosen, Benjamin Zephaniah and Helen Ward. Here is a typical contribution, by Matt Johnson, singer in The The, and publisher of Tales from the Two Puddings:
In an age of frantic surfing, pointing and
clicking it comes as a relief to find there is still
at least one shop where you can slow down
time and reflect amongst books, old and new,
where the staff are warm and knowledgeable and where mystery
still lies hidden between dusty covers, just waiting for you to open
the right one up and turn the page. Newham Bookshop is the
Shakespeare and Company of east London.